Tuesday's Tales - a real-life tale of adventure

Stepping away from folk tales today to share this … pootling around the internet looking for one thing and discovered something else.  I’d never heard of the Swede, SA Andree, who, on July 11 1897, set off with 2 others to discover the North Pole … in, of all things, a hydrogen balloon!

The Ice Balloon’ by Alec Wilkinson recounts the expedition.

Salomon August Andree was born in 1854, the youngest of 7 children, and was known for his precocious intelligence. 

He attended the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.  In 1882, as a member of the Swedish delegation of the First International Polar Year, he went to Spitsbergen in the Arctic.  The ‘Polar Year’ was a project to study polar weather, with 11 countries taking part.  Andree's observations concerning aero-electricity were so good, solving technical problems that had the other countries stumped, that the Swedish results were considered the best.

It wasn’t until 1892 that Andree, aged 38, rode in a balloon; a couple of flights was all it took to convince him that he needed his own balloon and so bought one.  A pioneer, he wanted to prove that it was possible to travel long distances in the air.  Known for his brusque, reserved manner, he never said what drove him to endanger his life in such a way.

The balloon that Andree used for his voyage to the North Pole was called the 'Eagle'.  In 1896, together with Nils Ekholm, a meteorologist, and Nils Strindberg, an assistant professor of physics, Andree set off from Sweden.  However, due to the lack of favourable winds, they were stranded for 3 weeks.  Andree had to return to Sweden to raise more money; during this time, Ekholm resigned, having little faith that the endeavour would succeed.  His replacement was Knut Fraenkel, a civil engineer.  At 42, Andree was the oldest of the trio; Fraenkel was 27, and Strindberg, the youngest, was 23.

From left: Vilhelm Swedenborg (the reservist), Nils Strindberg, Knut Fraenkel, and SA Andree (seated)

They finally set off on the afternoon of July 11.  In the words of an onlooker, Andree stood in the basket “calm, cold, impassive.  Not a trace of emotion is visible on his countenance; nothing but a firm resolution and indomitable will.”  The balloon rose and headed north-east, but while crossing the harbour, it suddenly descended.  The balloon recovered, but the guide ropes remained on the ground.  Without them, Andree was sailing a balloon he could not steer.  The onlookers watched until they lost sight of the balloon … “For one moment then, between two hills, we perceive a grey speck over the sea, very, very far away, and then finally it disappears.

In August 1930, the ‘Bratvaag’, a Norwegian sloop, sailing in the Arctic Ocean, stopped at a remote island, White Island.  The crew were out sealing, but travelling with them was a geologist, Dr Gunnar Horn.  Some of the crew went looking for water; instead they returned with a book, its saturated pages stuck together.  It turned out to be a diary; written on the first page was, ‘The Sledge Journey, 1897’.

The captain and Dr Horn retraced the crew’s steps to a stream … they found an aluminium lid … saw something protruding from a snowdrift, which turned out to be a canvas boat, its boat hook stamped, ‘Andree’s Pol Exp 1896’.  Near the boat was a frozen body, leaning against a rock.  Little remained but bones; the head was missing, the clothes strewn about; Horn surmised that bears must have disturbed the remains.  Carefully opening the jacket, Horn and his companions saw a large monogram ‘A’.  It was then they knew, without a doubt, that they’d found SA Andree.

The discovery was reported, the diaries published.  Several weeks later, a ship hired by reporters sailed to White Island where one of the reporters, Knut Stubbendorff, found a sodden notebook, which he proceeded to dry.  He wrote of the process: “I have seldom, if ever, experienced a more dramatic, a more touching succession of events than when I began the preparation of the wet leaves, thin as silk, and watched how the writing or drawing, at first invisible, gradually became discernible as the material dried, giving me a whole, connected description written by the dead – a description which displayed unexpected and amazing details, and which allowed me to follow the journey of the balloon across the ice during the three short days from July 11 to 14 1897.

Each man had kept an account, with Andree’s being the most complete and descriptive.  He wrote that their first night was wonderful.  Most of their morning journey was through mist, with the temperature just above freezing.  Early in the afternoon, the balloon sank low enough to hit the ice.  Early on the morning of the 1h, as the fog thickened, the basket kept hitting the ice.  Soon after 8 in the morning, they leapt out of the balloon – they had made the longest flight ever of just over 65 hours.  Having travelled 517 miles, they were about 300 miles south of the Pole.

The crashed 'Eagle'

From the air, the fractures in the ice, or leads as they were called, had appeared to be deep open water, but on the ground they were found to be mere shallow streams formed by melted ice.  It took the men a week to build their boat, and pack their sledges, one for each of them.  They struggled to pull their sledges, each weighing over 400lb.  Not surprisingly, they decided to off-load non-essential equipment, and food.  Which made it imperative to hunt for food.  They headed south-east, towards Franz Josef Land, an archipelago in Russia, where they had arranged for a depot to be left for them.  Along the way, they shot several polar bears; at times the ice gave way and they fell into the water, sometimes the sledges too.

 Towards the end of July, Fraenkel began to suffer from snow blindness.  On July 31, when they took astronomical readings with their instruments, they discovered they had drifted west on the moving ice faster than they had walked east.  On August 4, they gave up walking east and headed south-west instead, towards a smaller depot on the Seven Islands, the temperature dropping all the while.  When their supply of bear meat ran low, they had to survive on bread, butter, biscuits and water.

On August 17, Andree wrote, “Our journey today has been terrible.  We have not advanced 1000 metres but with the greatest difficulty have dodged on from floe to floe.”  Although fatigued, yet they were undaunted.  Come August 29, Andree wrote that he had started to feel the cold; “tonight was the first time I have thought of all the lovely things at home.

Early September; Fraenkel was suffering from a large, painful blister on his foot and he couldn’t pull his sledge; all he could do was help Andree and Strindberg to push it.  By mid-September, having been pinned down by a “violent north-west wind” for two days, they realised that they had no hope of reaching the depot, and would have to spend the winter on the ice; Andree wrote, “Our position is not specially good.

Around September 21, they shot a couple of seals and a bear, which would give them food until April.  By mixing snow and fresh water to make walls and allowing them to freeze, Strindberg began building a house for them; they moved in on September 28.  But the next morning, disaster struck – the ice floe they were on had split into smaller floes, destroying their house.

On October 2, Andree wrote, “No one had lost courage; with such comrades one should be able to manage under, I may say, any circumstances.”  A few days later, having spotted a lowland on the island where there was no ice, they moved ashore.

October 8 – “It feels fine to be able to sleep here on fast land as a contrast with the drifting ice out upon the ocean where we constantly heard the cracking, grinding and din.”  Andree’s last entry: “We shall have to gather driftwood and bones of whales and will have to do some moving.

There’s no way of knowing when they died … probably not long after that diary entry.  The evidence that the sailors found in 1930 suggests that the camp hadn’t been properly established; the pile of driftwood that was mentioned had been gathered but not used.

There’s no way of knowing, either, what killed them.  But the sailors who found them in 1930, seeing the woollen jerseys and cloth coats on the remains of the three men, decided they must have died of cold and exhaustion.

Apart from the clothes, the other remnants of the expedition that were salvaged included the men’s scientific instruments and film cans.  Strindberg had been their photographer.  While some of the film had been exposed, about 90 frames were developed.

The remains of the three explorers were taken straight from the ship through the centre of Stockholm on October 5 1930

The poignancy and tragedy of this expedition reminds me of Scott's Antarctic expedition...